Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before continuing on with this review, I feel like I have to disclose that I am a person who knows a bit about Shakespeare. As a former English literature instructor, I’ve read Hamlet perhaps upwards of 30 times. It is my favorite play and one of my favorite works of literature for reasons that strangely enough are very personal and have little to do with the centuries’ worth of cache that has cemented the play in the human imagination.

So when I picked up HAMNET, it was for my love of Hamlet. And what I found there surprised me. I am in awe of Maggie O’Farrell’s ability to wholly inhabit an invented reality she has created in place of a complete historical record. This is by no means a story that attempts to replicate the most plausible sequence of events in the life of Shakespeare’s family. However, it is a book that is a testament to how imagination allows us live in and walk around in the idea of the past.

Many works of historical fiction really attempt to tell the story of an era, of a sweeping struggle, a wide-reaching moment in culture, and this book really does not do that. I respect that choice. Instead, O’Farrell tells the story of one house and one family, making their world feel hyperreal and all-consuming. This book intentionally refuses to illuminate much about the life of Shakespeare himself, in fact never naming him, but I do feel that it helped me understand things about the deep love that O’Farrell had for the possibilities, the pains, and the desires that surrounded him. Emotionally rigorous, extremely interior, and clearly written with respect for the dead, assuming the best of them, that they were capable, that they tried.

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